Monthly Archives: April 2019

CREDITORS              Jermyn Street Theatre

DEADLY DEBTS 

 

   The artistic  love affair between  August Strindberg’s ghost,  playwright Howard Brenton and  director Tom Littler continues to bear strange fruit,  surprisingly exhilarating.  There was Brenton’s brilliant  portrait of the playwright’s breakdown in THE BLINDING LIGHT (https://tinyurl.com/y4wzaya6 ) , some Dances of Death, and now the return of their Miss Julie  (revived in rep with this one, original review https://tinyurl.com/y3qf49rt )    And as a penultimate rendering – for they still plan another –  we get this furious three-hander . 

 

       It is set on the usual  godforsaken Nordic island with a ferry expected,  on which has arrived Gustaf  (a suave David Sturzaker) who the ex-husband of the lovely and worryingly independent Tekla.   She’s away, so he’s playing mind-games with her new, younger artist husband Adolf (James Sheldon).  In their long,  horribly funny opening colloquy,  the most evil of male-bonding demonstrations,  he persuades the poor sap of the following fallacies:  

  1.   that he is there to support and save him 
  2. that he must stop painting because the new era requires the more realistic medium of sculpture (evidence onstage suggests the poor sap is not much good at it:   there’s one rather porny female shape there and a lot of spoiled clay)   
  3. that the only hope of avoiding death from a painful “epilepsy” is to abstain from sexual congress, because “skirts” are a terrible trap and woman is “a man who’s incomplete, a child who stops growing, an anaemic who haemhorrages thirteen times a year..what can you expect from such a creature?”

       

        This,  highly entertaining in Brenton’s vivid language, is the first part of the 90 minute play.  Next, Gustaf sneaks off,  Tekla arrives  – a confident and rather cheerful figure  played with brio by Dorothea Myer-Bennett,  who will become the rather sourer  Miss Julie in the other play .    She and Adolf have an equally stressed-out, ambiguous, sexually confused conversation. At one glorious moment, Adolf emotes at great length about how he supported her career as a novelist and wore his own artistic soul  out doing it,    whereon she snaps: 

  “Are you saying you wrote my books?”

  and he moans:  

     “For five minutes I’ve tried to lay out the nuances, the halftones of our relationship…” . 

    Goodness, it could be any Hampstead media power-couple falling out today.   As Adolf limps off for some fresh air,  Gustaf returns and tries to get Tekla on his side, but she’s not falling for it.  Or is she? 

 

      Forgive my levity.  But an undertow of deliberate comedy  is certainly there in Brenton and Littler’s fascination with poor crazy furious brilliant August Strindberg.   They relish lines like “You vindictive bastard!    “You dissolute tart!”     And arter all, themes of sexual intensity, and furious confusion about who in a marriage owes what to whom, are actually timeless.   And the mutual rants are rather refreshing, in an age when none of us is allowed to be  that rude and unreasonable for fear or triggering some wuss. 

          Fair enough.   Angst  is a reasonable mindset when the original  author is broke, furious, hanging out in a derelict castle in the middle of Nordic nowhere in 1888 with three young children,  a wife,   a psychopathic fake gipsy and a dodgy Countess.  Moreover Strindberg, like his hated rival  Ibsen,  was struggling violently and not unreasonably to escape the 19th century and its dead-end sexual and marital mores. Not to mention trying to come to terms with his own stormy head.   

      But for heavens sake buy,  and keep ,  the programme-playscript:   the essay on the rival Nordic furies  by Brenton is both informative and hilarious.  

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  

playing in rep with Miss Julie  to  1 June

rating  three 3 Meece Rating, as it’s mainly worth it as a well-delivered curiosity  . 

Here’s a troubled Strindberg  bonus mouse though, writing rapidly in a furyPlaywright Mouse resized 

  

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THIS IS MY FAMILY Minerva, Chichester

ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE SONG 

     

 

    This is gorgeous.  Funny,  truthful, wise,  and bravely original in form.   Anyone with a a family – past, present, remembered, or merely observed in cautious auntly incredulity    should see  Tim Firth’s musical.  Or, more accurately, musical play:  it has no traditional blockbusting numbers and no choruses – though sometimes the characters sing across each other in their own preoccupations.   The junctions between singing and speech in fact are so natural that you hardly notice them and its lovely insouciance makes you feel as if breaking into song is the obvious extension of emphasis:   a heightening of what needs to be said or thought in the frenetic pace of ordinary life.  

   

  It is operatic  yet as natural as birdsong;   barkingly funny at times, but never oversignalling its jokes,  poignant but never mawkish.    Emotions or absurdities just bubble up in exasperations all families feel.  It’s a gem.   Daniel Evans opened it at the Crucible in  June 2013, and I cooed with delight then (“enchanting, sweet as a nut, glorying in grumpy family love”.)    Now leading Chichester, he brings it back r  con amore,   revised and musically tweaked.  But the enchantment lives on:  just go!

  

        The story is slight:  Nicky –  Kirsty MacLaren convincingly and marvellously playing a bright, observant  13 –  has won a competition for an essay on “My Family”.  There’s  her sullen 17-year-old brother Matt, Grandma May who sings hymns but listens to the cricket during the sermon, her parents Steve and Yvonne ,  whose tale of their first romantic meeting on a campsite she cherishes.  Oh, and auntie Sian whose romantic career is rather wilder.  Firth’s script,  sitcom-funny but raised to emotional truth by the music,  beautifully evokes the parents’ midlife mutual exasperation .

  

    James Nesbitt’s Steve with a  mid-life bloke crisis is beyond priceless:  rollerskates, free-running,  learning Arabic to impress the Abu Dhabi owners of his company,  and a running series of equally ill-executed and unnecessary DIY projects.  A home-made hot tub in the rockery electrocutes a frog.   Yvonne (Clare Burt, subtle and funny and sad)  is losing her grip on who she is, as the children spread their wings.    Matt – at 17 “on life’s mezzanine”, responds to parental questions with a furious sea-lion bark and flap; he   has gone Goth and done a pagan handfasting marriage ceremony with his girlfriend, who inevitably dumps him.   Auntie Sian careers on down the love-track,  and her song “Sex is a safari park” ought to be top of the charts for years.   Grandma May  (Sheila Hancock, a marvel) is gradually fading mentally:  losing the words of old hymns,  feeling the mist of confusion rise, swirl,  form into old memories,   then clear.    Throughout the play all the family relationships are spot-on, heartshakingly credible.

    

         And the plot?  Nicky’s prize is a holiday of her choice:  as her understated worry about her parents’ separate fractiousness grows, she opts to return to the lakeside camp where they first met.  So they all do.  Richard Kent’s lovely cluttered dollshouse set does some revolving magic,  the rain pelts down, the tent – well, we’ve all been there.  

 

    Everything resolves, but let’s not spoil it.   The tune which Firth’s characters sing is all our songs;  their tale evokes splendours and sorrows of every family on every street.     The jokes work wonders.  “Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and find that what you’re left with is the nut”.  But so do the truths:   “It isn’t the fault of the star that we’ve stopped seeing it”.    

 

box office   www.cft.org.uk   to 15 June

rating  5    5 Meece Rating

    

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GHOSTS Royal, Northampton

A CLEANSING FURY FROM THE 1880s

 

 

    Wipes you out every time,  Ibsen’s furious, shocking,  violent assault on the cruel decayed conventions  of his century’s end.   Its indecency –  a plot driven by syphilis, prostitution,  illegitimacy,  female victimhood and religious hypocrisy    capsized his first.  “A loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly…. Gross, almost putrid indecorum….an open drain”.      The century since has at least understood that in art such drains are vital and contemplation of appalling things sometimes necessary.  But this was no self-indulgent modern Sarah-Kanery or Edward-Bondism:   it rises to its real greatness in  the bitter, clear-eyed author’s truthfulness about human bonds: not only  between mother and son but in  the dead, thwarted affection between Mrs Alving and the absurd Pastor Manders.

    

      In other words I revere the play, and feared a little that after Richard Eyre’s devastating , taut 100-minute version which last sent me reeling out into the street,  I would have misgivings about returning to two acts with  Lucy Bailey’s production and a Mike Poulton script.  However,  Bailey is always good at finding and expressing the violent shocks of any play.  And this she does here, from the first moments when  in the elegant sea-green set of the decorous Alving home   Declan Conlon’s crude dangerous Engstrand hurls his supposed daughter Regina to the floor.  She shrinks from his touch. And Poulton’s careful wording, here and later in an aside by Mrs Alving,  suggests more strongly than usual yet another “putrid indecorum”;  he’s a sexual abuser as well as a bully.  

   

        All through, indeed,  the physicality of  Bailey’s direction serves the play well,  right through the taut explanatory scenes between Helen and Pator Manders, to the final moments when Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald grapples and begs for a merciful death (“I gave you life!” “Take it back!”).   The lighting is expressive,  the pretty green darkening to an underwater tone suggesting the monstrosities below the bourgeois surface, then at last lightening  with the thin Norwgian sunlight.   Light is at the play’s symbolic core,  in   Helen’s furious “possessed by the decaying spirits of the dead…we are pathetically afraid of the light!”.  

         

    James Wilby as Pastor Manders has a famously difficult task.   He is both a caricatured absurdity    on discovering Regina’s origin he has the nerve only to worry that it “made a mockery of the sacrament of marriage”, which reminded me oddly of ex-Pope Benedict’s recent essay worrying mostly about the status of the Eucharist when speaking of a raped altar-server.   Manders is a booby, a blinkered believer proud of having “crushed the rebellious spirit” in Helen Alving;   and yet we have to believe also that he was the friend to whom she once ran for help, and that they shared a thwarted love.   Wilby just about achieves this, because despite Manders’ terrible statements he physically exudes a kind of clerically suppressed amiability.  

 

 Niel-Mee’s Osvald is strong, too, rising from stiff sullen boyishness  to raging terror and helpless pleading.  But towering above them all, as she always should,   is Mrs Alving.  Penny Downie ,   aquiline and elegant,  is the conscience and heart and victim of the play:  she needs to convey a passionate heart, questioning moral intelligence,  gentleness,  terror, anger, quiet observation,  and an edge of fond mocking humour,  in that extraordinary moment when she sees through Manders yet again,  affectionately and without rancour.   Penny Downie achieves all this.  I would watch it right through again simply to see that performance.   If this were a London production and thus eligible,  I’d glue myself to Albert Hall to demand that the woman gets an Olivier.

 

www.royalandderngate.co.uk    to  11 May

rating four   4 Meece Rating

        

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OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY              Southwark Playhouse, SE1

THE WORLD DONALD GREW UP IN…      

 

  It’s a long transverse stage:  at one end  at a scruffy crowded steel desk sits Jorgy, Michael Brandon exuding down-home amiability as the longtime head of a New England wire and cable company.  Not so profitable these days,  but jogging along, keeping 1200 jobs in the fading division ,   no outstanding liabilities, no breaches of health and safety law. Decent values.  At the far end facing him is a sleek black desk under a fake Picasso,   and the huge figure of Larry the liquidator:  Rob Locke as a massive,  dougHnut-addicted and majestically pinstriped vulture capitalist.  He is buying his way in, bit by bit,   to take control of Jorgy’s company,  close the unprofitable bit and strip the assets.  This is gladiatorial,   Wall Street versus Main- Street-USA.     Even in 1989, as the lawyer Kate says, it is  “what’s happening’.

 

 So how nicely appropriate of Katharine Farmer and Blue Touch Paper productions to  open  this 1989 play by Jerry Sterner on the very day we learned that President Trump gets a State Visit this summer.   Trump, apparently, saw it and loved it on its first outing.  It is almost a fable:    Jorgy, and his loyal PA Bea  (Lin Blakley, a lovely portrait of female loyalty)   represent the decent American business  dream of Harry S Truman,   as opposed to the less-decent American reality of Trump Tower.  Larry is entertainingly frank about the only point of anything being to get money, get it right now, and enjoy the shootout on the way.    “In the old Westerns, didn’t everyone wanna be the gunslinger?”.   But once, as Jorgy says,at least the robber barons left traces like banks, railroads and mines. Now it’s just a trail of theoretical paper.

 

 

    Brandon is a likeable Jorgy, never wavering,  exuding decency,  but rising to eloquence only  in his final plea to shareholders.  More anxious is his deputy and likely heir Billy (a weasel-sharp Mark Rose)   who begs the insouciant Larry to wait two years before his wrecking operation,   so he can save his career.   Bea’s daughter Kate  (Amy Burke)  is a NY lawyer deputed to make the company’s case and outwit or persuade Larry out of his hostile takeover.   But he fascinates her, as pythons do.   

   

 

      The action is a series of duels and confrontations, and in the first half has trouble holding interest unless you really enjoy share-dealing intricacy  (though Bea’s donut-carousel is the most magnificent prop of the season so far).    It heats up nicely  in the second half with some treacheries and twists,   not always from a predictable direction.      Kate has some startling  pre-Weinstein moments with the appalling Larry.  And there are lines which, in the year of Trump’s arrival here,  and a time when workforce welfare is rarely top of the financial world’s priorities,  are telling. 

   “What about the planet?”

   “Sold for scrap”

   “What about the workforce?”

   “It’s called maximizing profit. Restructuring”

   ‘So restructuring means you never have to say you’re sorry?” “Yep”

   “How can you live with yourself?”  “I have to. Nobody else will”. 

 

box office  southwarkplayhouse.co.uk   to 11 May

rating three

 

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ALL MY SONS                   Old Vic, SE1

GUILT, GRIEF  AND PITY

 

  It is almost uncanny how an Arthur Miller play, treated respectfully, can in the most wrenchingly extreme story still catch the common rhythms and tides of family and neighbourhood.  Banter,  mild irritation,  passing jokes and  irrelevances ebb and flow even as the hard relentless current beneath is pushing the tragedy forward.  It makes it real.  No gimmicky signposts or updatings needed:    as our breath shortens we are right where it is, in smalltown 1948 America wounded by war.   It is a day when a three-year-old tragedy has risen sharply into focus:  the dead son Larry’s memorial tree blows down, his former girl-next-door fiancée Annie has been invited down from New York by the surviving brother Chris. And the mother, tidying up,  finds the dead airman’s old baseball glove.

  

 

        Jeremy Herrin’s direction respects this sense of a precise moment in time :  there is only one bravura staging effect in Max Jones’ set,  as the cosy wooden house physically shimmers forward  out of a video of wartime footage at the opening,  and retreats into darkness in the end as the blighted son stands alone.    Apart from that, in this single garden setting a magnificent cast carry its truth unhindered. 

   

  Bill Pullman is perfect  casting as Joe:   the “man’s man” and patriarch,  whose aircraft components factory did well out of the war.  He cherishes the surviving son,  Colin Morgan’s deftly impressive Chris, and  amiably tolerates having his less-educated language  corrected by his heir.   You might see momentarily a relaxed, successful alpha man, cheerfully joshing with the doctor, with the eccentric Frank who reads horoscopes  and a neighbour’s small boy playing detectives.   But even in the first scenes Pullman can with delicate subtlety suggest a tamped-down, unadmitted unease.  One bad thing happened,   one piece of sharp practice in the bustle of wartime provisioning…

 

        Equally subtle  is Sally Field as his wife Kate: who  suddenly, electrifyingly,  moves  in a heartbeat from mumsy hospitality to relating a dream she had in the stormy night:  her boy Larry looking down from his cockpit as it spun downward, calling for her, falling, in the roar of engines.    Hairs bristle on your neck: that is exactly how dreams go after a disaster:   a repeated journey to an edge , a helpless anticipation before you wake in dread.   But Field returns with unnerving naturalness to the homely madness of the denial that sustains her:.  Larry isn’t dead. He’ll reappear.   “Certain things can never happen”.

   

      But they did. The remorseless  tide runs on:   below the courtship of Annie and Chris, through moments of laughter, neatly unfolding back-story and the arrival of Annie’s brother as avenging and accusing angel, yet one with a moment’s touching vulnerability  – Oliver Johnstone does it marvellously –   as he almost succumbs to the charm of an old neighbourhood and Joe’s comforting  manliness.     

 

      It is an intimate, unshowy production:  its only fault – in the unforgiving acoustic of the Old Vic and with its barely raked seating – is some audibility problems, and even Herrin succumbs to the incurable mistake of many directors:   sitting actors on the floor, downstage,  for  important intimate conversations so only the tall can see them.    But aside from that quibble it has real greatness.    Stark truths and the futility of denial vibrate through the last powerful scenes : the banality of a single fault and the guilty lies beyond it have a terrible pathos.   The tragic flaw of putting “business” before the eternal finicky responsibility of the engineer is there in Chris’ howl : “Kids were hanging in the air by those [cylinder] heads”.     Whether Joe’s acceptance and fate are redemptive is for us to decide:  the key recognition is  that it doesn’t matter whose boys died in which planes.  They are all his sons.  Kate’s final departure,  hunched and hobbling under the weight of reality,   breaks your heart. 

 

boxoffice  oldvictheatre.com   to 8 june

rating four  4 Meece Rating

           

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SWEET CHARITY Donmar WC1

(Published in Daily Mail on Friday, one must moonlight to support this website’s unfunded free existence –   but here it is  for theatrecat regulars..)

 

       The minute you walk in the joint (Hey, big spender!), the trumpets and sax blare an impertinent welcome and you’re in the right dive.   Director Josie Rourke’s last hurrah, after running this smart little theatre for seven years, is a real Easter egg:   an indulgent treat recklessly overdecorated with mad props ,walking-billboards, a flock of stepladders and an over-the-top 1960’s nightclub scene with the entire chorus dressed as Andy Warhols. 

        

  But to hell with the good-taste police: Lent is nearly over,  and  every number is irresistible.  Neil Simon and Cy Coleman’s musical, fizzing with Dorothy Fields’ smart lyrics,  tells one of the world’s most enduring love stories, echoed from grand opera to  Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  A  young woman with a past falls happily in love with a respectable man who can’t, in the end,  overlook her sexual history.  Even if she was powerless,  seduced or, like Charity Hope Valentine, with little choice but the sleazy life of a taxi-dancer fondled for dimes ,“Stuck on the flypaper of life”.  The old story still works today, as the MeToo era reminds us how pretty girls get preyed on and shamed.   

   

      The glorious Anne-Marie Duff is Charity,  the rashly generous, constantly betrayed nightclub ‘hostess’  whose only friends are the other girls.  She is one of our finest serious actresses,   with a marvellous face – ah, those mournful downturned brows – which turns in a flicker from mischief to bottomless weary woe.   She is not known or trained for musicals , so surprise as well as delight met her husky-voiced  energy and sweet physical wit.   By the time Arthur Darvill as her geeky beloved Oscar let her down,  every man in the audience and most of us women were helplessly, indignantly in love with the woman.  

           In the small space the dances are spectacular, and  Wayne McGregor’s choreography richly expressive.  On one hand we have the aggressive,  sprawlingly sexy  moves of the scowling girls in the club, wide-legged and jerky in Bob-Fosse style like broken robot Barbies: “We don’t dance – we defend ourselves to music”.   But when Charity is herself,  naively dazzled by meeting  the movie star Vittorio, daydreaming about a better life  or parading triumphantly with “I’m a Brass band!”, it’s quite different.   She shrugs and skips and clowns and wriggles, clutching her shiny minidress like a little girl,  graceful and artless and human in lovely contrast with her  seedy life of paid-for snogs and weary bumps and grinds.   She’s adorable. Her final betrayal is painfully shocking, even if you know the show well.     

    

  There’s a famous guest-spot with “The Rhythm of Life”,  by Daddy Brubeck the spliff-wielding pastor leading a jazz-revivalist meeting .   On press night Daddy B,  terrorizing poor shy Oscar, was Adrian Lester with a spangled T shirt and helpless grin.    Here’s  another stage A-lister not known for an ability to dance.  That showed,  hilariously, but he was having such an  indecent amount of fun than when Le Gateau Chocolat takes over on the 29th I fully expect to see Mr Lester outside, hanging around,  hoping for another go. .who wouldn’t?

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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THREE SISTERS Almeida, N1

DOWNBEAT, DOWNCAST  

 

    Some years ago, leaving a particularly slow and uninspiring Chekhov performance in Yorkshire (never mind which play, spare the blushes)   I heard a weary man saying to his partner “Eh!  they were well overdue for that revolution!”.   Which is not how you should feel after one of the master’s plays.   This one – like several others – is about  household claustrophobia,  unfulfilled passion, mutual irritation,  disappointment and the fact that in some lives only stoicism and resignation will do.  Yet Anton Chekhov’s humour,  sense of character and artful observation of human ridiculousness can carry you beyond depression and leave you – even in the case of an Uncle Vanya ! –  oddly uplifted.

   

      But it can misfire. This – adapted into nicely rendered modern demotic speech by Cordelia Lynn – is directed again by Rebecca Frecknall,  whose plangent, rather beautiful Summer and Smoke won two Oliviers –  one for best-actress for Patsy Ferran (here again, as the eldest sister Olga).  Only one piano this time rather than a crescent of nine,  but the director chooses the same spare, open staging,  beginning with 18 mismatched chairs and the cast in a mimetic-balletic sequence as if at a strange funereal ritual. 

 

    Appropriate enough, since the three sisters and their brother are marking, on young Irina’s birthday, the anniversary of their father’s death.  But this is a play about households,  the grating ennui of trapped women and the hostility that grows between the clever, intellectually and emotionally frustrated sisters holding on to old ways and values and  their brother’s encroaching  , ruthlessly nouveau wife Natasha (Lois Chimimba, splendidly merciless).  And in the very long first half  (it’s a three-hour evening) to be honest the ennui is passed on to us, with interest.  The play sags, feels dangerously static, and delivers almost none of the dry humour available in the text.   

 

The performances are fine:  Ferran’s weary schoolmistress Olga,  Pearl Chanda’s sardonic, bored Masha with her growing obsessive love for the stumblebum husband (Elliott Levey, beautiful comic timing) and a sweet Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz)  who later moves from romping enthusiasm to despair and final determination with delicate strength.  

 

      After the interval , mercifully,  in mood and pace it could be a different play:  the action of course increases with the fire, the cracking of marriages, Natasha’s increasing horribleness,  the duel and the epic drunkenness and disillusion of the old doctor ( Alan Williams, a great treat ),    The lighting is still deliberately dim .  mainly Anglepoises and the odd candle throughout, until the last outdoor scene  ,  but the play finally starts to  crackle with energy and tension, as it should.   Natasha’s odd perch overhead , finely lit and still on the stairs,  creates a real edge of necessary menace.  The last great speeches from the Baron and from Andrey hit home;   and there is real shock of pathos in  Masha’s desperate clinging to her lover, the unresponsively callous Vershinin,  as her husband heroically consoles her.    I left happy enough. But goodness, the first scenes badly need more vigour.  And a trim.

 

box office 0207 359 4404 

rating  three     3 Meece Rating

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INK FESTIVAL – Halesworth Cut – envoi 2019

REFLECTIONS ON A RICH SEA OF INK…

    

  I saw 22 plays in two days,  but it was hardly half a bite of what was on offer.   In three days there were  40 , each performed several times.  Everyone made jigsaws, scuttled between them, as if at a miniature – and better-natured- Edinburgh fringe.

         There were  145 credits :  writers, directors,  actors,  designers, crew.    Overseeing it was a  host of even-tempered volunteers , a management team of superhuman equanimity,  and the artistic director Julia Sowerbutts occupying a minimum of three places at once.  But almost the most astounding aspect of the 2019 INK festival of short plays was the footfall:  from opening time on Friday until the last performance on Sunday night,   the Cut  – its cheeky satellite “Kings Theatre” in the car showroom next door, and the tiny Museum up the hill  – were buzzing. Queues formed,  timetables were scribbled on, recommendations eagerly swopped.  

      And, for here is no elitist separation of pros and ‘civilians’, for three days you could see  actors ,  directors and specialists  of all ages and types being buttonholed (sometimes in actors’ case while rushing to their next show)  to be congratulated or asked advice.  That’s one of the rich pleasures of this unique festival:  it feels democratic, discussive,  open:   in a way that  the making of theatre should be,  and too rarely is.  Some of the plays came from seasoned old hands, or known names (though often writers or performers shyly trying out something new to them).  A smattering of  celebrity names helps, but most every year are just submissions, filtered over months before,  from people who have never seen their work brought alive  in front of an attentive audience.   Certainly not by directors and actors of the high solid calibre that INK now commands.  Each of us learns from that, in fascinated humility at the alchemy of collaboration.

         The shortest plays are five minutes,  the longest rarely over 25.   Some you could  classify as good-quality sketches –  one excellent joke delivered with brio, one apparent cliché debunked with a wicked twist.  Others you sense are the germ of a full-sized play;    embryos,  waiting for more work now that the author has seen, live,  what aspects come most vividly to the fore.  Others again are complete  evocations in miniature of a world or a character you don’t quickly forget. 

       There is immense value in this gateway, too little acknowledged and not, I think,  reproduced with such grandeur in any other region.     One writer for this year’s festival is 18, another 14:   there will be in the future, playwrights of international repute who can say that their first modest effort was a fifteen-minute squib in Halesworth.  Possibly in the car showroom.   There are actors of every generation, teen to nonagenarian,  working together;  faces you have seen on screen or stage elsewhere,   others you probably will.  

      The plays were about love in all its varieties,  ageing, jazz, misunderstandings, enraging relatives,  revolution, politics, sex trafficking,  pig-farming, Tinder, being a dog, and theatre itself.  Those were just the ones I saw:  only half the total.  Some were for radio.  Some were wickedly funny,  others shockingly moving, one involved nudity and had to be restricted by the conscientious ushers to  over-16s only.  

     But because they are all short  – here’s another INK-miracle –   nobody in the teeming, fascinated crowds of audience shied away from anything.   Those who like their theatre solid and meaty can brave a brief few minutes of utter frivolity;  those who normally have a dread of earnest “issue drama” find,   using up a twenty-minute gap in their schedule, that they are  to their surprise easily drawn in to a tale of refugees or the pain of infertility.  

        It works.  It is the seed-corn of theatre and of new writing.  My only beef is about the ones I missed:  luckily some of them are on the Feast from the East Tour.   See below.  Two at least of them I loved.  Two I haven’t seen yet. See you there. 

        Small can be very beautiful.  Suffolk can be proud.     

THE FEAST FROM THE EAST TOUR

HE FEAST FROM THE EAST: BEST NEW SHORT PLAYS FROM INK FESTIVAL 2019

Please contact the theatres directly through their websites or box offices for tickets

Thursday 18th April – Sir John Mills Theatre –  Ipswich – 01473 211498

Friday 19th April – Headgate Theatre – Colchester – 01206 366000

Saturday 20th April – Headgate Theatre – Colchester – 01206 366000

Tuesday 23rd April – Sheringham Little Theatre – Sheringham – 01263 822347

Wednesday 24th April – The Garage – Norwich – 01603 283382

Thursday 25th April – Westacre Theatre– 01760 755800

Friday 26th April – Fisher Theatre – Bungay – 01986 897130

Saturday 27th April – Bradfield Community Centre– 01986 872555

Sunday 28th April –  Brandeston  Village Hall – 01728 685655

 

THE PLAYS

 

AFTER PROSPERO by Martha Loader

Comic parable for our times set some 400 years after Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A storm is about to break over Prospero’s flooded island home. Squabbling sisters, Ariel and Miranda, are reunited for their father’s wake.

 

NINA’S NOT OKAY by Shappi Khorsandi

A night out on the tiles with 17-year-old Nina is fuelled by something far more potent than drink.

 

WELLINGTON by Scarlett Curtis

Three quirky women — granny, mum, and daughter — cram on the sofa and the watch the royal wedding on television.

 

MIXED UP by James Mcdermott

A comedy drama about music, mix tapes and feeling mixed up.

 

BUS STOP by Dan Allum

A clean-cut American is taunted and teased by a precocious lass as they wait for the last bus to the unlovely Green Hill Estate in Huddersfield.

 

THAT’S GREAT! by Shaun Kitchener

Rory is desperate to go out with Jake. His flatmate Harry is desperate to help him. So why does the plan go so desperately wrong?

 

THE SOUND GUY by Corin Child

A clumsy sound technician is having a serious problem with his plugs at a rally organised by right-wing patriots.

 

  

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HOTEL PARADISO          On tour pre Edinburgh Fringe

ANOTHER KIND OF HOUR

  

  Staggering back from holiday, I sentimentally booked this at the New Wolsey in Ipswich because 2019 is the 50th anniversary of my unremarkable student performance in the Oxford Playhouse in the Feydeau farce of that name.   I was Unnamed Little Girl 2.   I thought it might be nostalgic.  

      As jet-lag abated I realized that it is nothing to do with Feydeau,  but a gorgeous,  good-natured hour-long confection of acrobatics, aerialism and balance-work  by Lost In Translation Circus.   Probably better entertainment than ours for OUDS 1969, frankly…

      It is  loosely worked around a threat to the hotel’s ownership,  with a demanding couple with a briefcase (some fine briefcase-and-bucket juggling) ,  causing anxiety to Serge the Concierge,   Madame the owner,  the bellboy and the very sprightly maid.  After some larks with the settling audience, the six  embrace the challenges by standing on one another’s shoulders, using fellow cast-members as human skipping ropes,  juggling bottles and making teetering towers out of chairs   (“I realize this is not the way property law works, but go with it”  says Serge, in one of the few actual lines).

      The pace hots up;  the maid is dutifully dusting the chandelier and finds herself stranded up there, so passes the time with some gasp-creating swinging on various limbs and ankle joints,  and when her love affair with the bellhop seems fraught,  the obvious answer is for both to do numerous handstands and the splits.   A bankruptcy notice is met by Madame with first a wild swinging routine nearly knocking out the lighting rig of the Wolsey, then one of the best comedy hula-hoop acts I have seen, as she attempts to get at a bottle and glass and pour out her drink , which involves moving the hoops up and down from ankle to upheld wrist;   for the finale they all suddenly display, as the backstage curtain falls on the supposed swimming-pool,   that they can also actually bounce, to great heights.

       In this fraught time of Brexit negotiation,  this all seemed perfectly reasonable to me.   Here’s to indicative handstands, meaningful cartwheels and benign defiance of common prudence.    It’s touring, see below, then going to Edinburgh.   

Performing tomorrow Friday 12  

Bristol  7:30pm    Circomedia St Paul’s Church

0117 947 7288 www.circomedia.com

Then   Lincoln
Friday 19 April 2pm

Lincoln Drill Hall pay what you can

01522 873894 www.lincolndrillhall.com

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WHERE IS PETER RABBIT?         Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1

BEATRIX BEATS BREXIT WITH TOP BEAK-WORK

 

   The Haymarket these spring mornings is dense with toddlers and their attendants (I’d say  by the look of it  20% parents, 50%  grandparents, and the rest nannies and millennial siblings /aunts).    They are  all emerging dead pleased from the Theatre Royal,  and what more glamorous for your first theatre than those gilded splendours?  One near me was gazing spellbound at the ceiling before the action started, and actually paid less attention to the show throughout than admiring the decor.   But most were rapt, and indeed  my one grudge against the Old Laundry’s loving Beatrix Potter production – first aired three years ago -is that they waited till my youngest toddler was 31.

 

      With Stephen Edis music and some Ayckbourn lyrics,   it is a thousand sweet miles from the ghastly film (Potter was right, in her lifetime , to turn down Disney).   Te set is perfect . There are make-it-at-home flats and simple props ( under fives need  it simple enough to put on their own show baack home) but also with an arch with changing Potter scenes projected like a living book. Joanna Brown as the author introduces  a series of tales for a simple hour, assisted by the dim but benevolent Mrs Puddleduck; we hardly need the celebrity recorded voices of Griff and Miriam.

 

      The main joy is in the puppetry, led by Caroline Dalton  and performed by puppetter-actors,  with notable characterization by Samuel Knight as Jeremy Fisher and Tommy Brock.   The pleasure is in their meticulously witty detail as they invigoarate the the very faithfully-Potter creatures. Great synchro beakwork from both ducks and top hopping from Jeremy Fisher (a gasp all round when the big trout  threatens).  The production takes the trouble to create a menacing offstage squeak from mr MacGregor’s wheelbarrow (another gasp)   and to make sure Mrs Tiggywinkle’s nose does indeed go sniffle-sniffle-snuffle .  But a particular bouquet ,please,  for the way disgusting old Tommy Brock searches his bum.   That’s  my second classy-badger encomium in two days (see below for In The Willows!).   

 

Box office: 020 7930 8800, to April 28

rating  four tittlemice    4 Meece Rating

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IN THE WILLOWS            Oxford Playhouse & touring

A FRESH WIND BLOWING THROUGH AN OLD TALE 

    

  Down on the Riverbank Club,  teen DJ Rattie is bangin’ it behind the deck,  telling the shy diffident Mole   “There is nothing– absolutely nothing– half so much worth doing as simply messing around with beats!”.  

  

    Er…blink: OK,  we’re not in 1908 any more.  This isn’t the Wind in the Willows by   Alan Bennett or Disney.  In Metta Theatre’s cheeky,  exuberant hip-hop musical version , Kenneth Grahame’s oar-plashing sylvan tale is kidnapped by the unruly class at The Willows school,  next to the rough Wildwood Estate where the Weasel gang rule.   The show  raves, cartwheels,  windmills,  head-slides and tears up the stage with hip-hop and breakdance exuberance,  only occasionally pausing for a bit of retro tap or an unexpected ballad. It takes on both our fascination with the vigour of urban grunge and grime,  and our fear for the violence alongside it.   The sober grownup  among them is Clive Rowe as Badger ,the Willows class teacher: inspired casting, as he  exudes his marvellous solid ,tuneful benignity in the middle of therave.  

            Mole  (Victoria Boyce, very touching) is the new girl, an underground-dweller only psychologically:  after losing a brother to violence at ten,  she hides from friendship under a scuffled dark burden of trauma.    Zara MacIntosh’s Rattie is the cool-girl flowing with the stream who takes her on,  and whose bestie is a wonderfully lithe dancing Otter:  Chris Fonseca from Def Motion. The two sign out songs together, astonishingly deft.   Harry Jardine’s hopping, bopping  bright-green Toad zips round the stage on a motorscooter :  he’s a rich boy, but with a fraudster Dad in prison.  Two frivolous rabbits whirl around,  grave Owl is in a hijab,   and the Chief Weasel  – oh my beating heart! – is the dazzlingly agile Bradley Charles.      

 

  Rhimes Lecointe’s choreography all the way through is wonderful, as are Will Reynolds’ set and nicely tricksy lighting .  This is  Metta’s biggest show yet, and has – like their Jungle Book only more so –   pulled in some of the sharpest dance talents in, as it were, the ‘hood.   So it’s part gig.  But characteristically,  Poppy Burton-Morgan’s book and co-written lyrics show mores respect than parody for Kenneth Grahame’s original.   These days, for instance, though Toad can’t escape jail in a washerwoman’s outfit  he does it crouched inside a white washer-dryer…

   

    At first  it felt like just a bit of fun for the rising-teens, a cheeky update in the fashionable  rackety genre of urban-music (which, by the way, was much appreciated by even the tiniest around me:  I am always startled by how young they get into hip-hop and grunge these days. Whatever happened to the wheels on the bus go round and round?).   But more importantly the musicl  grows emotionally.    In the second half there is more clarity on Mole’s guilt over not saving her brother,   and the harsh connection that forged to the Chief Weasel .  In a time when we are having to recognize the toxic interconnection of ordinary school life with knives and gangs,  it feels oddly urgent.    

  

    Toad is a hoot, and his despair at the wreckage of his home by the weasels is funny. But then rather moving when the rascal – just a kid after all –   finds they’ve killed his only pet,  Alan.  This may be the first musical to show a youth in lime-green underpants  attempting CPR on a goldfish.    There are two beautiful, lyrical duets as Badger mentors the young:  in the first, he tries to persuade clever stroppy Rattie to go to her Oxbridge interview.  Her defiance of its presumed snobbish elitism  alternates touchingly with her genuine fear she can’t do it.  In the second,  he  pleads with Mole to forgive herself : she was a child when she froze in fear as her brother was killed.  Tears to the eyes.

    

    Of course there is  a secret passage into Toad Hall,   and a battle to oust the weasels.   Naturally,  it’s a dance-off:   Chief Weasel throws a stunning acrobatic breakdance  versus the lithe, signing-dancing Otter.  But unlike Grahame Metta seeks reconciliation, understanding and – as Rattie heads off towards university to “change the system from inside” –  penal reform .    Kenneth Grahame of course never dealt with how Toad gets away after his prison-break.  But having seen this I like to think  he got Community Service.   

 

box office   https://www.mettatheatre.co.uk/in-the-willows

touring to 8 June:    still to come York, Malvertn, Blackpool, Wimbledon, Hornchurch, Bristol, Guildford

rating  four  4 Meece Rating

   

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Kunene and the King. Swan, Stratford upon Avon

THE OLDEST HAVE BORNE MOST…

 

Jack is an ageing, terminally ill, scruffy, alcoholic remnant of an actor, with a grubby cardigan and Falstaff gut. He is muttering lines from King Lear in his chaotic flat. Lunga Kunene – played by the play’s author John Kani – is his nurse, another ageing man but as dignified and calm as Antony Sher’s Jack is chaotic.

HavinG sprung himself and his cancer from hospital on condition he hired a nurse, Jack expected a woman, ideally a white one. Graceless and grumpy, he reluctantly has to accept that “Sister” Kunene will live in – and not in the old servants’ quarters.

 

This is the new South Africa 2019: 25 years after the end of apartheid and Mandela’s freedom and rise to leadership. Even apart from Jack’s shuddering horror of death (“As an actor, you think you know about fear…”) both men have adjustments to make. Both, apart from anything else, need to shake the habit of treating the other as a specimen: one of “you people”, white or black. This is not always easy. Jack’s disavowal “I’m not political” meets contempt from Kunene who observes quite rightly that people who say that are usually profiting from something very political indeed. It’s a scratchy subject in any country, especially here: but in Kani’s hands often funny, sometimes explosive, sometimes poignant, always, arresting and important. Specific though the SA setting is, it opens great vistas of heart-stopping universal wisdom about death, guilt, reconciliation and human need. Its 95 minutes will be with me for months, and if there is any justice it will be seen more widely. I shall go again

 

 

. I should admit that it is close to home for me: for two years at the height of 1960’s apartheid my father was posted to Johannesburg . In termtime I was at school (a racist and brutally odd convent) in Krugersdorp. In the holidays, with parents anxious we should not think apartheid in any way normal or excusable, I helped my mother with food distribution in the townships and got shunned by white neighbours for teaching the maid’s teenage children to swim. Decades later at the elctions I marvelled at the comparative benignity of Mandela and of his people: even in 1963 when nightmares had haunted me that my father, following us home later, would die in a well-justified uprising. Twenty years on, I grieve that justice and equality are so far from complete.

 

 

But it needs no private connection to be swept into this honest, humane and thoughtful play. White-man Jack is determined to play Lear before he dies; Kunene, taught only Julius Caesar at school because it is about conspiracy failing and “one Shakespeare was considered enough for the native child”, doesn’t know Lear. But he becomes engaged with it, though horrified by the unwise King’s lamentable failure to consult “ancestors” like a good African. He remarks that Mandela was a Lear when he stood down to “crawl unburdened towards death” and that Zuma was both Goneril and Regan. Sher is wonderful, attuned in every move, playing against Kani to perfection: part enthusiastic sharer, part furious codger, sometimes horrifyingly a white Massa once more, but sometimes opening fissures of stark feeling. Kunene is patient, gentle, infuriated, repressed, embodying every thwarted human emotion of a downtrodden people and its gentle heart. It takes more than nursely authority to track down all the gin half-bottles in Jack’s stash, and more than professionalism to tolerate his eruptions. It is beyond a nurse’s duty to drape a dying delusional actor in a table-runner to take pictures for the Lear he will never live to play. We laugh aloud often, we gasp in shock, we are confronted by the pity and shame of incontinence , but listen with fascination to Jack’s explanation of how a great actor interrogates every line, learns to mean it. A terrible mutual rage flares, becomes a fiery dance of laughter, subsides to glowing embers in the beauty of still, wry reconciliation.

 

box office rsc.org.uk to 23 April

 

rating five5 Meece Rating

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THE TIDE JETTY              Eastern Angles, touring

SECRETS AND MEMORIES IN A WASTE OF WATERS

     

  You can’t fault the atmosphere:   Jasmine Swan’s set takes you straight to the wide skies and muddy, reedy mystery of  Breydon Water, where the Norfolk and Suffolk Broadland rivers meet and strange old structures rot quietly into history .  Structures like the titular tide-jetty  – designed to guide faster water round a bend and help scour depth in the channel.    Rushes sway before a vague watery horizon,  baulks and planks of wood become jetty , houseboat and bank as the cast nimbly move them, often silhouetted, lost spirits of the past.     Chris Warner’s songs become harsh primitive harmonies  and when Tucky the marshman,  balancing on his punt, points his fowling-gun out over us,  his targeted bird is heard plashing right behind us in the artful soundscape.   Mesmerizing too is  a mimetic opening and repeated sequence choreographed by Simon Carroll-Jone:  a remembered drowning.   Benjamin Teare moves in imaginary water with the terrible balletic grace of a corpse, gently through with struggling,  returning to nature. 

 

    This is the world, finely realized,  of Tony Ramsay’s new play,  which follows his excellent John Clare one some years back.  For all that,  I salute it.  It was also pleasing, on a particularly disastrous Brexit-news day,  to join the sigh of relief at Tucky’s repeated motto “When you can’t fix everythin’, you fix what you can”.   Westminster, please copy.   However,   it has sacrificed too much storytelling to atmospherics,  and dangerously lost some clarity too, which director Scott Hurran could easily remedy.     In the interval there was a touch too much anxious mutual questioning going on over the ice creams,  as to who was dead and who was related and why everyone seemed so tense.     The back-story – of three friends long ago, two men in love with the same woman – does become clear, but the reveals are late.    So the prevailing unease gives us a touch of Cold Comfort Farm.  Or, more positively, of Wuthering Heights here . Wuthering Broads. 

           

           Abe Buckoke was much to my taste as Tucky,  long-haired, knowing more than he speaks, very Norfolk;  he is a cause of fascination to young Anna (Megan Valentine) and of unease to her mother Eliza, one of the original three friends (Laura Costello, the best singer of them all, beautiful).  Her stepfather is the stern river-engineer Morton (who Benjamin Teare doubles) , a decent if socially dull man  stuck in a sexless marriage with Eliza.  He is full of pronouncements about the importance of imposing precision, measurement and planning on the unruly water-world,  as he cannot on the still more unruly emotions of his women.  There is a subplot about corruption in the timber business which, to be honest, only dilutes the dreamlike feeling of the music, the sound and the drownings. 

    

         A particularly tricky problem for Teare as Morton is that the slightly stilted, formal  speech of a Victorian paterfamilias is devilish hard to imbue with emotional energy (note how Trollope and even Austen lines get fiddled with, sneakily, on TV).   The women do better,  sounding both in period and actually credible,   but the stiffness imposed  on  Teare strikes a distracting note ,  Still, it’s early in the tour and there are ways to make that settle.  And the atmosphere is worth it. 

easternangles.co.uk     touring to 1 June

rating three   3 Meece Rating

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